A sermon for Lent

March 5, 2017

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Preached by Canon Brian Rees, using Gen 2:15-17, 3:1-7 and St Matt 4:1-11, at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 5th March 2017, the first Sunday of Lent.

Well, how is Lent going so far? Maybe it feels a bit like the newspaper cartoon showing a man writing in his diary: it is 12.01 a.m. on New Year’s Day and the comment reads ‘so far, so good.’

‘Who told you that you are naked?’

The first lesson was an extract from the second Creation story (the first being the story of the seven days and the institution of the Sabbath). Adam (‘man’), whose name is associated with the dust, or more properly with the red fertile earth from which he was formed, and into which God breathed his breath, his life, his soul, his blood, his animation (all the same word)… eats of the fruit which he was specifically told not to and it sticks in his throat, where it has remained in men ever since as a reminder of our disobedience and wilfulness. The story is wonderfully detailed and complex, made more-so by the wrong ordering in which is now appears in our text. Put into order, God makes man from the soil, and then Eve from Adam to be his companion. He puts them in the perfect garden of great beauty and bounty. They have everything and will live forever. They are naked, and free and unashamed. They have an easy and fulfilling relationship with God. And this sublime intended state will continue unless they are disobedient, when death shall come to them and they will return to the soil and God’s living breath with return to him. Well, you know what happens. Perfection is shattered. Harmony is destroyed. Clothes and death are imposed. Innocence is lost.

‘Who told you that you are naked? Why are you hiding behind that towel when yesterday as a child you were happily ripping off your bathing suit and running naked into the waves? Why is the bathroom door suddenly locked? Why are you ashamed? Who said you are useless at sport, or not musical, will never achieve academic success…. I have spent my whole life as a teacher trying to reverse what boys have been told about themselves so that they might realise their true potential.

When was it as a child that something similar happened to you? When did you first become self-aware? Who told you that you were naked, … or fat, or beautiful, or clever, or dumb, or talented, or a loser, or had the wrong colour of hair, or the most gorgeous eyes, or no sporting skills….? When did you first start seeing those ‘puzzling reflections in a mirror’ of yourself… when what you thought of yourself was a distorted image of that seen by others? When did you get worried about yourself, and start hiding from others’ gaze and judgement? Who told you that you were naked?

The second lesson was the traditional story of the temptation of Christ that follows upon his Baptism. It was all so wonderful: the excitement of meeting John, the coolness of the water, the voice from heaven that had been clear and loud. But now, in that time of private reflection – 40 days (40 being Jewish shorthand for a long time) –  it was a worrying prospect… when Jesus sees only puzzling reflections of who he is and might become…. ‘If you are the Son of God…’ what kind of Messiah will you be, Jesus? Show your power, take the authority, do some good in the world. (1) Take care of yourself and your physical needs, and while you are at it, take care of the social and physical needs of those about you also, for there is so much need and poverty and injustice in the world and now you can really do something about it. And (2) force a unifying religious awareness on those around you so that God’s rule will be surrendered to by everyone. And (3) Jesus, you know our Jewish peoples are being oppressed and persecuted by the Romans both at home and abroad…. Take political power and bring about the new Davidic kingdom that has been promised to Israel…. It was all so exciting, so inviting, so tempting…. And in his wilderness time Jesus finds his own self-awareness…Not king, not powerful, not above controversy, but only servanthood, teaching, nomadic wanderings, powerless, bound to suffer and die alone and misunderstood.

I take you back to the Genesis story, however, for there is a key there to both stories, and maybe to your and my story also. There is a further self-awareness possible. On the simplest level, God formed man from the earth – ‘Adamah’. Once Adam ate the forbidden fruit he introduced death into the world and was sentenced to return to the earth from which he had been created by God.

But the ancient Rabbinic mystics pointed to deeper meanings here. The name Adam does suggest our lower ‘earthy’ nature, but in addition to that there is perhaps the defining feature of adamah: the earth is a realm in which we can plant and grow fruits, giving rise to new life and growth not there before. Man’s relationship with the ground hints at his greatest potential. An ancient Jewish story, picking up the text ‘let us make man in OUR image…,’ has a dialogue between God and his angels, and the story concludes that Adam did not die but was merely planted in the ground that he might grow anew and be fruitful and multiply. Recall that day in infant school when you planted a seed on a blotting paper in a bottle. Every day you checked it to see growth, but nothing: if anything it looked decayed and rotting. And then one day a green shoot appeared from the decay, and it continued to grow and grow until it was a leafy plant.

The ancient Rabbis saw here the secret of God’s ‘creation truth’: in all of us there is an earthiness: disobedience, rot and decay, there is the ability to destroy, to wreak havoc, to minimise ourselves and those around us, to not realise the potential God intended for us. And yet we also have the ability to bury it in the ground, to transcend the downward pull and grow from the earth into something greater with unlimited potential. Each of us have free choice, as did Adam: he represents both an awareness of huge potential and also our lower ‘earthy’ nature. We share these aspects. Who told you that you were naked? ‘If you are the Son of God cause….’

I see Lent not as a time of struggling to resist the things we have given up, but as an opportunity to be more fully self-aware. It is a time to face truths within and about ourselves that only we know, and to accept anew that God knows also: he visits us in the garden when we are hiding from his presence, just as he did Adam. It is a time to bury the things keeping us from realising the God-given potential lurking within us that we might grow into our true selves. We have an earthy nature – we share that with Adam: so be it. But we can grow from this into something higher and better. The wounded, misunderstood, forsaken Christ dies that he might be risen from the earth, might grow into something far more wonderful. We share that same destiny. Stop worrying that people might see you as you actually are, and stop accepting others verdict on you. Strive to be your true self and let God give you the growth that he wills for you.

Lent challenges us to be real, and to strive to realise our potential. But that means honesty. When everything is stripped away, when we cannot hide any more, is that when we can be free to be ourselves, and to see ourselves as God does? He made each of us perfect, just as he wanted us to be, with enormous potential: why is it so hard for us to accept that and grow. Jesus in the wilderness, no less than in the Garden of Gethsemane struggled… can we do less? Lent demands of us some wilderness time of wrestling with our inner selves. Amen.